The fight to overturn the latest corporate coup at Pacifica has only begun

Crisis is never far away at the Pacifica radio network, but it is now facing perhaps its worst crisis ever as a new “corporate coup” has, at least for now, shut down WBAI in New York City.

Pacifica listeners and on-air hosts have successfully fought back against prior attacks on the progressive network, most notably reversing the lockout at KPFA in Berkeley in 1999 and the “Christmas Coup” at WBAI in 2000. In those cases two decades ago, the national board of Pacifica had become self-selecting, with board members with corporate backgrounds selecting like-minded people to new board seats and trying to rewrite the bylaws to not only sell off one or more Pacifica stations but be able to personally pocket some of the proceeds. Intense organizing and a boycott of donations eventually not only reversed the coup but begat a new democratic structure of elected local station boards and a national board made up of local-station representatives supplemented by affiliate representatives. (Many stations across the United States carry Pacifica programs to supplement their local programming.)

In that case, many activists believed that starving listener-supported WBAI of funds would reverse the coup. (Full disclosure: I was personally involved in that struggle.) Indeed that proved to be the case. Yes, Pacifica listeners, and exiled staff members and producers won in court, but as that was ultimately a political struggle, it had to be won through the actions of its supporters.

(photo by The City Project)

Unfortunately, the latest coup, which began with a dramatic physical takeover of WBAI facilities on October 7, won’t be so simply solved. This is a fight that WBAI listeners and staff believe can be, and will be, won — and this fight is also a political fight. But in the Christmas Coup two decades ago, the intention was to maintain all five Pacifica stations intact for potential sale. This time, however, the coup mongers are strongly believed to want to destroy WBAI in order to sell its license.

The coup mongers, led by Interim Executive Director John Vernile (on the job for all of two months!) and National Board Secretary Bill Crosier, insist they executed their takeover in an effort to “save” WBAI, citing the New York station’s operating deficit. It is true that WBAI has struggled financially for several years, although Mr. Vernile has drastically overstated the size of the debt. But what really stands out is how the takeover was accomplished.

WBAI was in the midst of a fund drive, but the fund drive was stopped, the web site at which listeners could make donations was disabled and all local programming was taken off the air, replaced with canned programming from California with no local content. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on the station the morning of October 7 dismantled the equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; immediately fired all employees; ordered them to leave; confiscated the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments. The transmitter was switched to broadcast the canned California programming and the WBAI web site, including all archives of past shows, was wiped clean and replaced with a one-page site with a propaganda message justifying the coup.

Do these sound like the acts of someone interested in the well-being of the station?

And if a financial deficit were really the problem, it would seem most counter-intuitive to do everything possible to prevent the station from raising funds and to block its bank account.

No, this was not an act of benevolence.

Scapegoating WBAI for the network’s problems

As with most things Pacifica, this is a complicated story. The entire network, not only WBAI, is struggling financially. A faction centered at Pacifica’s two California stations, KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles, have long advocated the selling of WBAI’s license and to use the proceeds to benefit the remaining stations, particularly their own. Although WBAI has been commercial-free for its 60 years as a listener-supported Pacifica station, its frequency, 99.5, is in the commercial portion of the FM band, and thus worth tens of millions of dollars. This faction has made WBAI into a scapegoat for the financial difficulties of the network as a whole.

That is the context that is behind this latest coup. Of the nine National Board members supporting the coup, three are from KPFA, two from KPFK and three from the Houston station, KPFT. There are 22 members of the National Board, so nine do not constitute a majority. Moreover, 12 board members — an outright majority — oppose the WBAI takeover. Yet nearly two weeks into the coup, nothing has been reversed and the minority, for now, remains in control.

As noted above, this is complicated. An October 21 court date has been scheduled, when the contours of the legal case may begin to take shape. There have already been multiple court appearances, however, and those will be discussed below. Regardless of what happens, or doesn’t happen, on October 21, this standoff between the coup mongers and those opposed will not be resolved for some time, and resolving it will require considerable activist energy on the part of listeners, paid and unpaid staff, and other supporters.

So what is the takeover really about? Although there is a widespread belief that the real intention is to sell off the station’s license, despite the denials of the coup mongers, speculation is all that can be done for now. And perhaps there are other reasons.

“Make no mistake about it — it’s all about content — community voices,” said the lead attorney who has sued on behalf of WBAI, Arthur Schwartz, in an October 9 statement. “Nothing in the Pacific bylaws allows such a takeover by its executive director, who acted without even debate or a vote by Pacifica’s Board of Directors.”

A 40-year veteran of WBAI, Mimi Rosenberg, an activist attorney who has hosted WBAI’s outstanding labor program, Building Bridges, for decades, noted that although the takeover was sudden, the planning was not. “This has been in the works for a long time,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “The intent of the secret raid — or coup — was to wound the station irreparably by wrecking the fund drive, then drive the station to bankruptcy to sell it off so that the other stations in the network could feed off the monies from the sale of WBAI’s license.”

Ms. Rosenberg appears also to be slated by the coup mongers to be a scapegoat. She recently was handed a completely unjustified one-week suspension for allegedly putting WBAI in jeopardy. What was her “transgression”? It was uttering the words “stop Trump” in a promo for her Labor Day special broadcast. Pacifica claimed that uttering those words constituted an impermissible political endorsement that could put WBAI’s tax-exempt status at risk. So with the worst president in anyone’s memory in the White House, someone with the desire (thankfully not the competency) to become a fascist dictator, Pacifica should refrain from serious coverage? What sort of community radio station would WBAI be under such constraints?

Decisions of Pacifica headquarters worsened WBAI finances

Before we get to the legal twists and turns, it is proper to examine the financial situation that is the stated cause of the takeover. It is true that WBAI has experienced financial difficulties for several years and was expected to have a cash deficit for fiscal year 2020. By far the biggest reasons for WBAI’s financial woes are the massive back rent that was owed to the Empire State Building (where the transmitter was formerly located) and to the owners of 120 Wall Street (where its offices and studious used to be located.) That is significant because WBAI management had nothing to do with either contract — the onerous terms of those leases were negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office around the time of the Christmas Coup.

The rent for the new locations of the transmitter and studios is considerably lower, but the heavy expenses of the previous locations weighed the station down for years and ultimately required the taking of a loan to pay off. WBAI does need to raise more money to keep itself afloat, but would be in much less jeopardy without the Pacifica-imposed expenses. The pro-coup faction on the National Board has taken no note or responsibility for those actions of its predecessors.

According to a document filed with the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, WBAI is projected to have a cash-flow deficit of $394,000 for fiscal year 2020. That is the largest deficit of any of the five Pacifica stations, but is not substantially larger than some others. KPFA is expected to have a cash-flow deficit of $366,000 and KPFK a deficit of $314,000. There is no movement to sell the license of either California station. (It should be noted that not all KPFA directors back the coup, and KPFA listeners staged a demonstration opposing the WBAI shutdown, an act of solidarity cheered by advocates in New York.)

“There are so many mischaracterizations and distortions, both through ignorance and of course from distain and to otherwise misrepresent the essence and structure of how the network/stations work,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

Directly addressing the allegations that WBAI’s finances are “dragging down” the network, WBAI Station Manager Berthold Reimers said:

“The Pacifica National office is largely to blame for deals they made without consulting WBAI as well as for not doing audits which prevented the station from receiving Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funding. … [The debt] was caused by a contract negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office without consultation with WBAI. The station was put in an untenable position of having to pay $65,000 a month for the transmitter rental space. They also negotiated moving WBAI to 120 Wall Street, where the monthly payment was $45,000 per month.”

Mr. Reimers said that if the nearly $25,000 per month from the CPB that the station lost because the national office didn’t perform necessary audits in time is added to the unnecessarily high rents, WBAI lost close to $300,000 in annual revenue for many years.

Multiple court filings in first two weeks

Following the October 7 shutdown of WBAI, a group of WBAI producers and listeners asked the New York State Supreme Court (despite its name, that is the state’s trial-level court) for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to reverse the takeover pending further legal action. The next morning, a state judge granted the TRO directing the station to be returned to its pre-October 7 state and scheduled a hearing to consider if the injunction should be made permanent.

WBAI advocates argued that the takeover was illegal under Pacifica bylaws because no vote of the National Board was taken and thus there was no authority for Mr. Vernile to take such action. Mr. Vernile and the National Board faction backing him argued in an appeal to the Appellate Division that the TRO was “issued in the dead of night” and therefore invalid, and further argued that “Pacifica owns the property, offices and equipment of WBAI and thus cannot ‘seize’ it from itself.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

The Appellate Division ruled in favor of the appeal, vacating the TRO except for the termination of the 12 paid staffers. That order vacating the TRO was issued despite WBAI’s argument that the Appellate Division has no jurisdiction to overturn a TRO in the absence of a grant of appeal, which WBAI’s filing said had not been given, and that “We could not find a single decision where an appellate court assumed jurisdiction so that it could vacate a temporary restraining order.”

The coup faction on the National Board then sought to endorse the coup after the fact. A phone meeting of the National Board was convened and a vote taken on October 12. By any reasonable standard, this vote could not be considered fair. Apparently realizing they would lose the vote, five anti-coup members of the board had their phones muted so they couldn’t speak and were thus presented from voting! WBAI representatives on the board were told they had “a conflict of interest” and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. No such suspension of voting rights has ever been handed down under any circumstance. With the five board members blocked from voting, the motion to give after-the-fact blessing to the coup was nine in favor and seven against.

However, an emergency meeting was called by a majority of the National Board for the next day, October 13, and this time, 12 board members (an outright majority on a board of 22) voted to reverse the coup and instructed the corporate law firm that the coup faction had hired, Foster Garvey, to “withdraw from all litigation on behalf of Pacifica.” The board had never approved the hiring of the firm, which has filed all motions in support of the coup and the coup faction. According to the advocacy group Pacifica Radio In Exile, “All 12 board members, who represent a quorum of the nonprofit’s board of directors, formally waived notice requirements for the special [October 13] meeting and convened on a conference line that did not permit the involuntary muting of participants.” It is also notable that the 12 anti-coup members included at least one representative of each of the five Pacifica stations.

The Pacifica faction then moved the case to federal court, and asked that court to issue a TRO reversing the October 13 vote, arguing that proper notice was not given for the second vote and thus should be vacated. That request was granted, with the court also scheduling an October 21 hearing. Until then, WBAI remains under the control of the coup faction and, effectively, WBAI supporters argue, under the control of the court. So reports after the initial state-court TRO was issued that WBAI supporters had won were premature. Additionally, station equipment was dismantled on the day of the coup, so work will be necessary before WBAI can resume local broadcasting should it be allowed to do so.

The federal judge who issued the TRO in favor of the coup faction issued an order “Enjoining Petitioners [WBAI representatives and two WBAI National Board members] from disregarding or causing others to disregard the properly passed motions of the Pacifica National Board on October 12, 2019, until such time as this Court has issued a ruling determining the validity of the October 13, 2019, motions.” The judge ordered that no meetings be held that do not follow Pacific bylaws and further ordered that WBAI’s lead attorney, Mr. Schwartz, have no contact with any Pacifica employees or National Board members.

The law firm that the coup faction hired (with no authorization from the National Board) is Foster Garvey, one of the largest corporate law firms in the Pacific Northwest. One of the firm’s specialties is “labor and employment litigation,” which for a law firm of this type means that it assists corporations in screwing its employees, no matter the pretty euphemisms the firm uses in its description of its labor services. That ought to be inappropriate for what is supposed to be a progressive community-based radio network. What is inescapable is that corporate ideology is so pervasive that our own institutions are far from free of it.

“Winners” in Amazon sweepstakes sure to be the losers

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, wouldn’t seem to need the money. Nonetheless, huge sums of money will be diverted from social needs to line his pockets — a cost that won’t stop there, as gentrification will be accelerated still more in New York City and the Washington area.

In all, Mr. Bezos scooped up nearly US$3.7 billion worth of subsidies this week. Does someone worth $112 billion and owner of a company that has racked up $7 billion in profits for the first nine months of 2018 really need such largesse? Corporate subsides are hardly unique to Amazon, but this to all appearances represents the most blatant example yet seen.

Incredibly, these astronomical sums of money don’t represent the biggest giveaway offers, even in the “winning” areas’ metropolitan areas. The state of New Jersey, then under the governorship of Chris Christie, offered $7 billion to Amazon to build its second headquarters in Newark, and the state of Maryland offered $8.5 billion to Amazon to build in Montgomery County, which borders Washington on the opposite side of the Potomac River from Arlington, Virginia.

The waterfront location for Amazon’s campus in New York City’s Long Island City neighborhood is just to the north (or to the left) of these high-rise buildings. (photo by Jim Henderson)

Many other locations across the United States offered gigantic subsidies, as Amazon did all it could to initiate a bidding war. But as the two locations chosen (splitting in two the original proposal to create a single “second headquarters”) were picked because of the available workforces and city amenities, were these gargantuan subsidies necessary? It would seem not, making them all the more hideous. One strong clue is that Google is rapidly expanding its presence in New York City without, as far as the public knows, any subsidies.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, justifies Amazon’s subsidies by claiming that “It costs us nothing,” going so far as to assert that the city and state will get back nine dollars every dollar given away in subsidies. This sounds dubious, to be put it mildly, given that once all the state and city incentives are added up, the cost will be approximately $100,000 per job — a total amounting to all the state and city income taxes that will be paid by all the Amazon employees for the 10-year period of the subsidies, according to an analysis by Josh Barro, a former fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Writing in New York magazine, Mr. Barro wrote:

“The problem with [Governor Cuomo’s] analysis is it assumes all the economic activity we’re buying with the subsidy package wouldn’t happen without the subsidy package. And that’s not true. Google’s impending expansion in Manhattan — where it will develop a campus nearly as large as the one Amazon plans — shows a mega-tech firm might locate here even if you don’t give it billions of dollars.

Plus, when we do bring Amazon in, it will tend to crowd out other businesses and especially other people that might have located where Amazon is going. New York is crowded — there’s more demand for housing than supply, and the number of top development sites is limited — so the case that subsidized economic development means more net economic activity is much weaker here than it might be in, say, Cleveland.”

A dictated outcome that will facilitate gentrification

A city councilman, Brad Lander, was still more direct in his criticism. At a demonstration the day after Amazon’s announcement, Councilman Lander said, “This is not only an assault on Long Island City [the neighborhood where Amazon will build]. It’s not only an assault on housing affordability. It’s not only an assault on transit capacity. This is an assault on our democracy.” The reason behind that last statement is that the plan to throw $3 billion at the world’s richest man was hatched and negotiated in secret, and will be forced through via a state agency so that local officials will have no say whatsoever.

The exception to that is Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is kicking in $900 million in city tax credits plus allowing Amazon to apply for a program that would enable it receive property tax abatements for up to 25 years. Mayor de Blasio, the Barack Obama of New York City who is far from a progressive although he plays one on television, continues to do his his part to facilitate gentrification as he continues the legacy of his billionaire neoliberal predecessor, financial-industry titan Michael Bloomberg.

The waterfront area where Amazon’s new campus will be built is not virgin land. It is an area of warehouses and other businesses with blue-collar jobs but is located adjacent to a waterfront area that was once industrial but is now full of high-rise luxury housing, most of which has been built in the past decade. Although it is true that manufacturing has long been in decline in waterfront neighborhoods such as Long Island City, it is also inescapable that city policy under snarling Rudy Giuliani, technocrat Michael Bloomberg and duplicitous Bill de Blasio has centered on accelerating gentrification by using zoning changes and developer incentives to force out industrial operations and replace them with million-dollar high-rise condos. Long Island City, and the nearby neighborhoods of Astoria, Greenpoint and Williamsburg (particularly the latter two), are rapidly changing under the tremendous pressures of uncontrolled real estate speculation.

A view of Alexandria, Virginia. (photo by David Fuchs)

Jobs at the existing businesses will be lost in the redevelopment to benefit Amazon, and still more pressure will be placed on the already dwindling stock of affordable housing, adding to the pressure from the mushrooming upscale housing. There will also be more strain on an infrastructure (including a decaying, underfunded subway system) already unable to handle the number of people living and working in these areas. Gentrification doesn’t just happen — it is a process assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

To provide a working definition, gentrification is a process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. Make no mistake, Amazon’s arrival will not only accelerate gentrification in Long Island City and the nearby waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but kickstart gentrification in Queens neighborhoods further from the East River. This will displace not only people but local businesses as New York City becomes ever more a homogenized corporate shopping mall.

Alexandria, Virginia, will surely not escape this fate, either, as the Washington area undergoes it owns process of gentrification. The state government of Virginia and the city of Alexandria are handing out $573 million in subsidies, equivalent to $22,000 per job. That doesn’t include another $223 million in promised transit improvements. Amazon will also be receiving $102 million in subsidies for a new operations center that is projected to employ 5,000 people in Nashville, Tennessee.

The biggest but far from the first Amazon subsidies

Subsidies, unfortunately, are nothing new for Amazon, although never before has it received giveaways of this scale. According to Good Jobs First, Amazon had already received $1.6 billion in subsidies for its warehouses, data centers, film productions and its WholeFoods supermarkets from 146 separate programs. Just in 2018 alone, a total of 17 subsidies from governments in 13 states gave the company at least $237 million.

Amazon’s profits are rapidly rising — not to mention making Mr. Bezos the richest person in the world. The company reported net income of $5.4 billion for 2016 and 2017 before racking up $7 billion in the first three quarters of 2018. As an owner of 80 million shares in Amazon, Mr. Bezos is in no danger of losing his fortune. The harshness of working conditions at Amazon, well documented in numerous reports, means that he gets rich off the sweat of his workers, not only through the massive subsidies showered upon him.

Although it is skilled at the art of taking public money for its private profit, Amazon is far from unique, One good example is Wal-Mart, which greedily gobbles up subsidies while racking up gigantic profits. Wal-Mart is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

Protesting Amazon in Long Island City (photo via Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW)

Wal-Mart is a company that has reported net income of $70 billion over the previous five years, and in which three heirs of founder Sam Walton are each among the world’s sixteen richest people, worth a combined $139 billion. The Walton family owns about half of Wal-Mart’s stock, and last year “earned” from collecting dividends alone about $3 billion just for being born. They need not ever lift a finger to haul in these fantastic sums. The Donald Trump/Republican Party tax scam of 2018 that provided windfalls for U.S. corporations has showered still more money on Wal-Mart, which like most of its corporate peers, used the largesse to fatten profits and shower more money on its stockholders. Wal-Mart announced that in its last fiscal year it handed out $14.4 billion to shareholders in dividends and stock repurchases.

None of these appalling results are unique to Wal-Mart or to Amazon. The University of California Berkeley Labor Center calculates that low wages costs United States taxpayers $153 billion per year in public support for working families. Nearly three-quarters of United Statesians receiving public support are members of working families, the Labor Center reports, adding that more than half of combined state and federal spending on public assistance goes to working families.

So much has been written about inequality, stagnant or falling wages, corporate tax dodging and good old-fashioned capitalist class war what new can be said? Capitalism, alas, is working as it is supposed to.

When housing is a commodity instead of a human right

A basic problem of housing it this: Housing is a commodity instead of a human right. We’re not accustomed to seeing housing as a basic right for everybody, but why isn’t it? Other than food and water, what is more basic a need than shelter?

It is here that questions about why the cost of housing is so out of control should begin. Because real estate is a massively profitable commodity — a locus of speculation — your rent is too damn high. So is your mortgage. And not disconnected from that is the scourge of gentrification, which continues to decimate urban communities around the world.

The specifics can change from one city to another, but ultimately massive accumulations of capital are at work. In New York City, where the form of government is a de facto dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries, the hands behind sharply rising rents are in the open. In San Francisco, where gentrification is fueled by cascades of money flowing into the technology industry, or Vancouver, where foreign speculators are seeking profitable outlets for the massive amounts of capital at their disposal, the proximate causes are somewhat different. But the underlying causes in these and other cities are ultimately “market forces.”

“Example of Bruxellisation” (photo by “Uppploader”)

Market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers. Markets do not sit high in the clouds, dispassionately sorting out worthy winners and losers in some benign process of divine justice, as ideologues would have us believe. There is no magic at work here.

Neither housing, nor education, nor a clean environment are considered rights in capitalist formal democracies, and if you live in the United States, health care is not a right, either. Democracy is defined as the right to freely vote in political elections that determine little (although even this right is increasingly abrogated in the U.S.) and to choose whatever consumer product you wish to buy. A quite crabbed view of democracy or “freedom” if we stop to think about it.

That is because “freedom” is equated with individualism, a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

Housing costs in U.S., Canada far outstrip inflation

Let’s run some numbers and examine just how this “freedom” works for working people. By no means are the massive increases in the cost of housing limited to a handful of popular cities. Nor is this merely a new or recent phenomenon.

Since 1975, the average prices of houses in the United States have risen by more than 60 percent faster than inflation. In Canada, real estate prices have increased 46 percent faster than inflation since 2000. Those are countrywide numbers, not specific to particular cities.

That inflation-adjusted cost of U.S. housing was calculated by comparing the statistics for the period January 1975 to February 2017, as reported by the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, with the rate of inflation for that period as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator. The increase in Canadian national housing prices from January 2000 to February 2017 was then compared with the rate of inflation as determined by the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

If the prices of buildings are increasingly inflated above inflation, then as sure as the Sun rises in the east rents will rise, too. Often faster, as holders of real estate try to squeeze every possible dollar out of beleaguered renters. The U.S. government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a report that the Trump administration has not yet gotten around to removing, says:

“Shelter costs have been increasing faster than the costs of other items. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI), the costs of equivalent levels of shelter increased by 104 percent from 1985 to 2005 compared to a 74-percent increase in the cost of all other items.”

The department reports that for home owners, the cost of principal and interest on mortgages increased nearly 18 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 1985 to 2005. The cost of rent, over the same period also increased nearly 18 percent over the same period, again adjusted for inflation. As a result, the percentage of income paid toward either a mortgage or rent increased over these two decades. These trends have only accelerated since.

Incomes fall but rents keep rising

Those are national averages. In many cities, of course, rent increases have been much faster. Examining the trends in rents going back to 1960, Andrew Woo of Apartment List wrote:

“[I]nflation-adjusted rents have risen by 64%, but real household incomes only increased by 18%. The situation was particularly challenging from 2000 – 2010: household incomes actually fell by 7%, while rents rose by 12%. As a result, the share of cost-burdened renters nationwide more than doubled, from 24% in 1960 to 49% in 2014. … Rents have risen rapidly in many cities across the US, but looking at things over more than fifty years helps us understand the impact of these trends. If rents had only risen at the rate of inflation, the average renter would be paying $366 less in rent each month.”

Mr. Woo reported that although incomes in expensive areas like Washington, Boston and San Francisco have risen rapidly, rents have increased roughly twice as fast. In Houston, Detroit and Indianapolis, incomes have actually fallen in real terms, while rents have risen 15 to 25 percent. He found that the only U.S. urban areas where incomes kept pace with rising rents were Austin, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

For those workers struggling to survive on the lowest wages, the cost of living is a nearly impossible burden to bear. There is not one state in the U.S. in which a minimum-wage worker can afford the cost of the average one-bedroom apartment by working a full-time 40 hours. It would take 49 hours per week to afford the average one-bedroom apartment in West Virginia (the lowest figure) and 124 hours in Hawaii. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, you’d have to work at least 80 hours per week at minimum wage to afford the average one-bedroom apartment.

As this is a product of capitalism, not national peculiarities, we can see the same trends around the world. Average real estate prices in Toronto, adjusted for inflation, are seven times higher in 2016 than they were in 1953! Thus it comes as no surprise to learn the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is nearly double that of someone earning Ontario’s minimum wage. And not only does the supply of affordable housing not keep up, it is actually shrinking: In Calgary, for example, 3,000 rental units were converted into condominiums from 2006 to 2008 alone at the same time that the number of people in unaffordable housing steadily increases, while in Edmonton the wait-list for social housing in 2015 tripled.

A BBC report found that the average rent on a one-bedroom flat in London is £920, which would consume more than 90 percent of the after-tax income of someone working 39 hours per week at the minimum wage. Although not as expensive elsewhere, the rent for a one-bedroom would consume more than half of that minimum wage in Wales, West Midlands, and the southeast and east of England. A separate report by the Resolution Foundation found the household income of British renters increased two percent from 2002 to 2015, while their housing costs increased 16 percent.

And on it goes, from Paris to Berlin to Istanbul to Sydney to Melbourne.

Limited local efforts to counteract global forces

Some local governments in the cities subjected to the most extreme rent crises are taking measures to ameliorate market conditions, including those with a measure of effectiveness, such as Vancouver, which has instituted targeted taxes, and those with no effectiveness, such as New York, where the mayor continues his predecessors’ policies that accelerate gentrification.

Homelessness in Vancouver has reached record heights at the same time as the city has become one of the world’s least affordable, along with Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, and the California city of San Jose.

The city council of Vancouver in November 2016 instituted a tax on unoccupied homes that are not principal residences and are unoccupied for at least six months of the year. The city government estimates that more than 20,000 homes are empty or left vacant for most of the year. Earlier in the year, the British Columbia provincial government imposed a 15 percent tax on foreign buyers, who have been rapidly buying up real estate. “We need to find a balance between welcoming investment and ensuring it doesn’t skew the housing options for people who live here,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told The Guardian, while lamenting the actions already taken as “too late.”

Vancouver as seen from Lookout Tower

Home prices were reported to have declined since the 15 percent tax on foreign buyers was imposed, but whether that decline will be sustained, or translate into reduced rents, remains to be seen.

Doomed to certain ineffectiveness, by contrast, is the housing plan of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Rents there have escalated well beyond inflation for many years, with landlord profits increasing yearly. Gentrification was encouraged by the city’s mayor during the late 1970s and 1980s, Ed Koch, who infamously declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!” The pace quickened under Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, with the latter forcing through massive re-zonings of neighborhoods against the wills of residents.

The Bloomberg plan was to allow developers to run wild, and give gigantic subsidies to them in exchange for a few units to be set aside for affordable housing. Although he won election as a supposed progressive reformer, Mayor de Blasio has kept the Bloomberg plan firmly in place, and thus continues to drive gentrification, rising rents and the ongoing removal of residents forced out by unaffordable rents.

Gentrification is a deliberate process

Gentrification is not some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, as ideologues are fond of asserting, but rather is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Bill de Blasio tries to assert that gentrification is some natural, uncontrollable process beyond human control as fervently as his billionaire predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. In sum, Mayor de Blasio believes that the only way to get affordable housing built is to allow billionaire developers to do whatever they want, grant exceptions to already pro-developer zoning regulations, and accept a few crumbs in return. As a result, rents have increased more than twice as fast as wages since 2012, and a minimum-wage worker would have to work 139 hours per week to afford the average New York apartment.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Rezoning is the linchpin of Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan — specifically, what is called “inclusionary zoning,” whereby developers are allowed to exceed height limits and are given huge tax credits in return for a few extra apartments below market rates and targeted for specific income levels. This simply does not work, instead funneling still more money into developers’ bulging pockets and further fueling higher profits for existing landlords because the new high-rent housing puts upward pressure on the rents of older apartments. The affordable units created by Bloomberg’s inclusionary zoning account for just 1.7 percent of housing growth between 2005 and 2013, according to Samuel Stein, writing in Jacobin.

That is below the level of the city’s population increase for the period. Coupled with de-regulation laws with large loopholes, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 rent-regulated apartments have been lost since the 1990s, a city housing activist and reporter, Steve Wishnia, reported in Truthout. At the same time, other subsidies are thrown at developers to build luxury housing unaffordable by almost all city residents — a Midtown Manhattan tower in which apartments cost tens of millions of dollars and which is largely empty because the units are mostly bought by capitalists from outside the country as pied-à-terre received $35 million in tax breaks!

Jamming more money into developer pockets

Inclusionary zoning is a “fatally flawed program,” concludes Mr. Stein:

“It’s not just that it doesn’t produce enough units, or that the apartments it creates aren’t affordable, though both observations are undeniably true. The real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it marshals a multitude of rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification. The result is a few new cheap apartments in neighborhoods that are suddenly and completely transformed.

De Blasio wants to use inclusionary zoning to create sixteen thousand apartments for families making $42,000. That’s just 3 percent of the need for such apartments in the city today, according to the plan’s own figures. At the same time, the mayor’s policies would build one hundred thousand more market-rate apartments in the same neighborhoods. What will happen when these rich people arrive? Rents in the surrounding area will rise; neighborhood stores will close; more working-class people will be displaced by gentrification than will be housed in the new inclusionary complexes. …

Rather than curbing speculation or aggressively taxing landlords, inclusionary zoning keeps the urban growth machine primed and ready to build. … What this and other public-private partnerships will not do is fix the city’s perpetual housing crisis.”

The only alternative is to fight back. Fran Luck, a housing activist who has fought the gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, notes:

“Progressive movements from the 1920s through the 1960s fought for and won some housing relief for low-income people — including rent controls, public housing and Section 8 subsidies. But during the ‘Reagan [counter-]revolution’ of the 1980s, federal housing monies were slashed and by the late ’80s, mass homelessness, such as had not been seen since the Great Depression, had made a comeback, accompanied by accelerating gentrification.

“Today, with little housing money from the Feds, mayors such as New York’s Bill de Blasio, even with the best of intentions, simply have no source for ‘affordable housing’ funds other than the crumbs thrown out by large developers. While the housing movement in New York City is not dead — as shown by the annual struggle between tenants and landlords over rent regulation — it has been on the defensive for some time due to a real estate climate heavily skewed toward developer profits, not people’s housing needs.”

Such a climate enables judges judges to overturn even tepid attempts at stabilizing rents, such as in San Francisco, where a federal judge in 2014 declared that rents rise without human invention and thus a ruled against a city law that would have forced landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years.

Landlords are innocent victims of rising rents, the judge declared, and have no responsibility for San Francisco’s housing crisis. Bizarre, yes, but the logical conclusion of rampant ideology that declares the workings of capitalism operate on their own, as a natural process outside of human control. Public-private partnerships, whether designed to create housing or public infrastructure, are thinly disguised schemes to turn over public property to private capital, so the latter can cash in at the public’s expense.

As long as housing is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold by the highest bidder, housing costs will increase and we’ll remain at the mercy of landlords, who, under gentrification, decide who is allowed to stay and who will be pushed out of their homes. Housing should be a human right!

What do we do when a neo-Nazi speaks at a Left venue?

A sharp controversy has been raging in New York City Left circles for the past week, as one of the city’s few remaining Left spaces allowed a neo-Nazi to speak as part of a forum about the 9/11 attacks.

I had originally intended to not name names because the intent with this article is to discuss the broader issues raised, not only one specific incident. But as the issue has been widely discussed already, there isn’t any point to withholding the name of the locale, The Commons in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, this issue is much bigger than any one institution.

The basics are this: The owner of The Commons allowed the space to be used for a presentation by Christopher Bollyn, a virulent anti-Semite with a long history of publishing on neo-Nazi and white-supremacist sites. He was booked to speak as a “9/11 truther” who would talk on “9/11 and our Political Crisis.” Adding to the intrigue is that the owner of The Commons has herself been a prominent “9/11 truther.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

I don’t wish to paint with an overly broad brush. Many people who continue to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, do so out of genuine principle and attempt legitimate research. There is no reason to believe the official government account of that day, and one need not believe 9/11 an “inside job” to question the official narrative. (So as to not hide my own perspective, I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job,” for multiple reasons, and I am skeptical of the so-called “truther” movement.)

Although reasonable research merits support, we should distinguish between people who investigate the commercial ties of Bush II/Cheney administration members or who make scientific inquiries into the physical properties of the World Trade Center materials that were destroyed on 9/11 from the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that shade off into the considerable anti-Semitism that permeates the “truther” movement. That movement consistently provides platforms for rabid anti-Semites, and that is to their cause’s detriment.

On what basis do we defend an objectionable speaker?

This issue is impossible to disentangle from the Right’s continual conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel for its apartheid policies and other crimes against humanity in its ongoing subjugation of Palestinians from blanket accusations against all Jews. Critics of Israel routinely do so. Ironically, one defender of the owner of The Commons decided to build on Right-wing tactics of misinformation by inverting the meaning of words when he absurdly claimed that “There are zionist-fascists who are trying to destroy The Brooklyn Commons as a venue for radical events.”

Huh? People who oppose neo-Nazism, and condemn anti-Semitism on a Left basis, are fascists — and Zionists! Truly remarkable. That statement can be dismissed as the desperate agitprop of an individual who has burned many a bridge. But what of the owner of The Commons herself? When asked to cancel the appearance of Christopher Bollyn, she responded with a lengthy statement that seems to have since been pulled from her venue’s web site. But, in part, she wrote:

“I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space.”

That is not unreasonable. But once it was brought to her attention, she could have canceled the event, as Busboys and Poets in Washington and the Unitarian Society of Hartford swiftly did when confronted with the nature of the speaker. Two paragraphs later, however, she wrote:

“I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.”

Nobody is asking for a “cozy cocoon,” and the many groups and individuals aren’t objecting because Bollyn is from another part of the political spectrum, but because he represents something that ought to be out of bounds anywhere: A Holocaust denier and an advocate of an ideology that calls for (and has attempted) genocide. There can be no “debate” with that. To deny the Holocaust is to endorse the murder of 6 million Jews and the Nazi ideology behind it. If we are part of the human race, we give no quarter to that. Period.

One other passage stood out in The Commons’ owner’s response. Although the venue has consistently been promoted as a Left space (and many Left organizations have offices there), she wrote:

“Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Lies and damned lies

If I were an advocate of charter schools, I sure would be upset at being grouped with a neo-Nazi. To be sure, advocates of charter schools peddle lies about the performance of them, and knowingly do so in the hopes of destroying public schools systems, reducing education to narrow training schools for future corporate drones and busting unions. Alas, there are liberals, unable to free themselves of corporate ideology, who go along with this, thereby making themselves useful dupes. But discussion of charter schools is a legitimate topic, however much we disagree with them.

flier-opposing-bollyn-at-the-commonsThe purpose of the above defenses is to obfuscate the issue and turn it into one of “censorship” and of Leftists’ supposed inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints. This is the first I had heard of charter-school advocates booking the space and although I might not like that, there is no comparison to inviting a neo-Nazi.

Another defender of the decision to allow Bollyn to speak, Nathan J. Robinson, did so under the straightforward title “Let The Kooks Speak. They will only embarrass themselves.” Writing in Current Affairs, Mr. Robinson said:

“[T]he best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.”

He backs up this viewpoint by citing what he says happened at the talk:

“[A]ccording to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a ‘pathetic spectacle’ with the ‘supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.’ The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that ‘not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,’ and that and that once you ‘strip away everything else … here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.’ So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.”

Facing the larger issue

The point, however, isn’t that a raving anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and claims Jews assassinated John F. Kennedy to take over the U.S. government could be convincing. The issue here isn’t this or that individual speaker, it is the failure to confront anti-Semitism, racism and associated social ills. None of the defenders of allowing the speaker to talk have bothered to address the larger issue of the anti-Semitism that pervades the “truther” movement.

Take one prominent example. Many a “truther” (including some I personally know) repeat the preposterous argument that two, or five, (depending on the version) Mossad agents were “jumping up and down with joy” as the World Trade Center towers came down. This, sadly, seems to be widely believed among “truthers.”

Were these agents the same ones who called 2,000 Jews the night before to tell them not to go to work? What a busy day. Maybe the conversation went like this: “Yitzhak, Shlomo here. The family is fine, thank you. Listen, Yitzhak, I can’t stay on the phone; I’ve got another 500 to call tonight, but please stay home tomorrow because we’re taking out the towers. Oy, I better get time and a half for all these hours.”

Did the Mossad agents identify themselves to onlookers? Were they wearing Mossad name tags? (Maybe the tag read, “Hi, my name is Shlomo. I’m a Mossad assassin. How can I help you?”) Can anybody imagine one of the most professional (and thus deadly) spy agencies on Earth being so ham-fisted and obvious? No. Why would such a preposterous story gain traction for even a second? Because of belief, even if held unconsciously, that Jews constitute some sort of cabal, and when that arises on the Left it is among those who are unable to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.

I suppose that is not completely separable from a belief that because the U.S. government, or the Bush II/Cheney administration (take your pick) is capable of evil acts, all evil acts are done by them and thus 9/11 has to be an “inside job.” This is reductionist thinking. The irony of inside-job belief is that is actually lets U.S. foreign policy off the hook! Maybe people in the Middle East really are pissed off about the oppression they’ve endured thanks to U.S. imperialism and maybe some of them, with a deficit of political knowledge or guidance, decided that individual acts of terrorism would be their response.

Evil individuals or a rotten system?

We really need to get beyond the idea that no so much as a leaf moves without the CIA being behind it. I write that as someone fully aware of the CIA’s record (and have recounted it in numerous articles and in my book.) The CIA is not a secret cabal of evil people; it is simply the government agency that carries out much of the dirty work that is required to maintain capitalism and the U.S. as the financial and military center of it. If the CIA didn’t exist, some other agency would be doing that work.

Much of the 9/11 “truther” movement derives from an unwillingness to grapple with the concrete realities of the capitalist system, and the structural inequalities and oppression built into it. The CIA is not ultimately the problem; it is the system it serves.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to indulge in conspiracy theories than to systematically analyze the world we live in. Those evil doers did it! Let’s get rid of those bad people and all will be well! Anti-Semites who cast Jews in the role of evil doers, and assign responsibility for all ills to them, are just a more extreme version of conspiracy-theory mongers and, ultimately, lie on a continuum.

This I suspect is why otherwise rational people exhibit a willingness to believe ideas that fall apart once they are examined seriously, and why the “truther” movement is unwilling, or unable, to separate itself from unexamined, often unconscious anti-Semitism (such as the Mossad agents jumping for joy) nor even from outright virulent anti-Semitism that goes so far as to deny the Holocaust. Even if someone was unfamiliar with Bollyn before this episode (I, for example, had never heard of him), the most basic Internet search would find his work. The New York Left activist Carol Lipton, for example, did a quick search and found:

“Bollyn also makes repeated reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Bollyn regularly appears on David Duke’s blogs, blames Jews for all the ills in the world, is a strident Holocaust denier who refers to the ‘Holohoax,’ and has been quoted across Twitter in hundreds of posts to show everyone his fiercely Jew-obsessed and Jew-hating statements. He is credited by some 9/11 truthers with originating the theory that Israel and Mossad were to blame for 9/11. He blames Israel for everything from Orlando to problems in Ukraine. He was formerly a long-term writer with the American Free Press, a white supremacist newspaper that was founded by fascist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby.”

The online magazine JewSchool similarly had little difficulty finding Bollyn’s rants, publishing a long list of his nonsense, including numerous mentions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” well known as a crude forgery concocted by the frantically anti-Semitic régime of Tsarist Russia.

Taking a stand, even at a cost

To their credit, several Left organizations that are tenants of The Commons issued a statement condemning Bollyn’s appearance:

“As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.”

One regular user of the space, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, has said it will “pull all of its classes and upcoming events” and go elsewhere, even though this will cause itself problems in the near term. And that brings up to the final point for now. Should a space that booked a neo-Nazi be boycotted?

That is not so easy to answer, especially for those familiar with the effect runaway gentrification has had on New York City real estate. This, alas, has to be practical discussion. One prominent Left activist, with a well-earned reputation for integrity, argues that any organization that stays by renewing its lease would lose its credibility and that people should cut its ties with the venue. Another prominent Left activist, with a similar reputation, argues the opposite, saying that to leave would be to allow the far Right to drive us out. “We have hardly any spaces left and an easily accessible space, such as The Commons, that includes both meeting rooms and a hall for large gatherings is not something we should easily abandon — such spaces are central to our organizing,” she said.

There is no simple answer here. For years, The Commons has provided a low-cost space for a variety of Left causes and events, and the Left organizations that rent office space do so at below market rates. (Full disclosure: I have given talks there, had my first book party there and have attended dozens of events.) It is very painful to have to have this discussion, but it has been forced upon us.

The question of real estate in a capitalist economy looms large here. If housing and real estate were not capitalist commodities, and instead meeting places and centers for organizers were part of a public commons, this discussion would not be necessary; organizers would not be dependent on the decisions of one person who, as the owner of a private property, is not necessarily answerable to a broader community. Organizers may choose to “vote with their feet,” but those would be individual decisions.

Housing should be a human right, and would be in a better world, but an incident such as under discussion here reminds us that the the issue of space goes beyond basic housing — the restoration of a public commons needs to be central to our struggles.

They throw us out of our homes but we get ice cream

If there were any doubt that gentrification has come to my corner of Brooklyn, that was put to rest last weekend with the appearance of an ice cream truck. An ice cream truck painted with the logo and red color of The Economist. Yes, it was just as this reads. Free scoops of ice cream were being given out as a young woman with a clipboard was attempting to get people to sign up for subscriptions to The Economist.

Not that there had been any reason to harbor illusions about gentrification — the glass-walled, high-priced high rises sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm are merely the most obvious of multiple signs. The neighborhood where I live, Greenpoint, is notable as a Polish enclave, although a sliver along the East River was mainly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and artists two decades ago. In short, a place for people needing a (relatively) cheap (by New York City standards) place to live and which still possessed a working waterfront.

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

Not really the sort of folks who might be expected to read one of the two main flagships of the British finance industry. To watch, or participate in, an art parade, sure. That is the sort of procession one used to see. Or Mr. Softee, a local franchise with ice cream trucks (of the traditional sort) that played a jingle, over and over again, that had a way of getting inside your head, although not necessarily in a good way. One summer a Mr. Softee truck seemed permanently stationed on my block, leading me to write a poem on the uses of Mr. Softee’s ice cream other than eating and even as a talisman against an invasion of space aliens. As I said, the jingle has a way of getting inside your head.

But no matter how bizarre the sight of an Economist ice cream truck, there is nothing actually funny about gentrification. Not even a Financial Times ice cream truck in pink (although perhaps a little too close to the color of Pepto-Bismol for comfort there) would be funny. Systematic evictions, the wholescale removal of peoples, the wiping out of alternative cultures and the imposition of the soul-deadening dullness of consumerist corporate monoculture has become a global phenomenon.

Rent laws don’t help if your home can be torn down

This has accelerated to where not simply buildings are being emptied out, but entire complexes. In Silicon Valley, a San Jose apartment complex with 216 units is being demolished to make way for a luxury high-rise. The hundreds of residents there are protected from higher rents by local rent-control laws. But that law has a rather big loophole — the rent-controlled buildings can be torn down, and the residents kicked into the street with no recourse and no right to a replacement apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area as a whole lost more than 50 percent of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2013.

Gentrification literally kills — symbolized by the tragic death of Alex Nieto in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story brought to a wider audience in an essay by Rebecca Solnit, Mr. Nieto was a long-time resident of the Mission who was shot by police for being Latino in a local park — targeted because gentrifying techies, new to the neighborhood, decided Mr. Nieto was a threat and called the police, a tragic ending that was set in motion when a techie thought it amusing that his dog was menacing Mr. Nieto as he ate on a bench.

The Mission, as is well known, has long been a Latin American enclave. What is happening there, and in so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, is no accident. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Dictatorships of favored industries

There are interests at work here. The technology industry has a stranglehold on San Francisco, for example, its techies with their frat-boy culture rapidly bidding up housing prices and making the city unaffordable for those who made it the culturally distinct place it has long been. New York City is a dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries; the process of gentrification there has progressed through a mayor who snarls and can’t be bothered to hide his hatred for most of the people who live there (Rudy Giuliani), a mayor who covered himself with a technocratic veneer (Michael Bloomberg) and a mayor fond of empty talk but who is the Barack Obama of New York (Bill de Blasio). They follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch, who showed his humanitarian streak when he declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Despite the reasoning of a federal judge who two years ago overturned a San Francisco ordinance designed to slow down speculation in housing that accelerates exorbitant rises in rents, those rents do not rise without human intervention. Not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for all its low-income residents, according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, which also reports that only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households in the U.S. with incomes at or below 30 percent of their local median income.

The trend of rents taking up a bigger portion of income, although accelerating in recent years, is a long-term trend — one study found that rents have risen close to double the rate of inflation since 1938, and the prices of new houses at an even higher rate. Gentrification and the rising rents that accompany it are found around the world, from Vancouver to London to Berlin to Istanbul to Melbourne.

Just as markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest industrialists and financiers, allowing the “market” to determine housing policies means that the richest developers will decide who gets to live where. The vision of former New York City Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (enforced through policies kept in place by Mayor de Blasio) is of Manhattan and adjoining areas of Brooklyn becoming a gated city for the wealthy, with the rest of us allowed in to work and then leave. The most profitable projects for developers are luxury housing for millionaires and billionaires — interests coincide. Even when a local government makes a tepid attempt, under public pressure, to ameliorate the harshness of housing conditions, such as with San Francisco, it is swamped by the tidal pull of market forces.

This global phenomenon derives from a top-down global system, capitalism, under which housing is a commodity for private profit instead of a basic human right. A free scoop of ice cream really doesn’t compensate losing the ability to keep a roof over your head.

Civil rights marches versus the right to puke

It was a day of vivid contrast. One the one hand, tens of thousands marching through the streets, angry over a lack of justice and appalling inequality; on the other hand, the arrogance of privilege distilled in an alcohol-fueled invasion.

The Week of Outrage did meet SantaCon in the streets of New York City. “Taking the streets” has seldom meant such different things.

Despite the raw anger still felt in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and so many others), the December 13 Week of Outrage march in New York City was a model of peacefulness. A multi-cultural multitude, there was a real respect shown toward others throughout. Time and again, when somebody accidentally bumped into someone else — regardless of who bumped who — both would quickly say “excuse me.” I was even thanked for being there after gently bumping into someone else. I appreciated that, but I was only doing my duty as a human being.

Marching in the streets of New York City

Marching in the streets of New York City

Then we have SantaCon, where yuppies and other privileged White people in their 20s act out their “right” be as drunk as possible, to overrun neighborhoods and vomit on the sidewalk. In past years, New York’s edition of this annual spectacle of drunken obnoxiousness took place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that has become the poster child for gentrification — once a center for artists and non-conformists, it is now completely overrun with bars and chain stores.

Even there, bar owners and bartenders were fed up with it, and faced with a community unified in its opposition, SantaCon decamped for the Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods to the north, at least based on the numerous sightings of drunk Santas as the Week of Outrage march passed through those areas.

The SantaCon revelers were frequently encouraged to join the march; the reaction was almost invariably a slack-jawed uncomprehending look as if they couldn’t conceive of doing such a thing. Likely they couldn’t. The one notable exception I saw was when I suggested to one frat boy-looking character who probably works on Wall Street that he forget about SantaCon and join the march. He responded with a fusillade of expletives. Ah well, the stock market had just had a bad week; perhaps he wasn’t able to throw any grandmothers out of their homes and was in a bad mood because of it.

Claiming drinking as a “creative” activity

The flavor of SantaCon participants was captured by the Village Voice:

“Doug Bunton, owner of [a Lower East Side tavern], says he allowed Santas into his bar one time and quickly vowed never to do so again. ‘A guy poked me with a candy cane and said, ‘Santa doesn’t pay,’ and from then on I make no exceptions. I think their purpose is to take over the bar and make you do what they want,’ Bunton asserts. ‘I think they should try doing it in the Bronx, and see what they get there.’ ”

That would be interesting. But as one can not have privilege without an ideology justifying it, an anonymous SantaCon representative offered this nonsensical gem in the same Village Voice article:

“SantaCon’s New York organizer, the one who gives his name only as ‘Santa,’ feels SantaCon is merely misunderstood. He says outsiders are uncomfortable with such an unconventional and creative celebration. He insists the event is not a bar crawl, but rather an excuse to dress up, go caroling, and spread holiday cheer. ‘It draws criticism very easily from people because it’s rare to see so much unbridled joy and optimism outside,’ the man called Santa tells the Voice.”

There you have it: Getting drunk and vomiting in the streets, and doing so while wearing corporate products symbolizing consumerist excess that were almost certainly manufactured with sweatshop labor in a poverty-stricken corner of the world is “unconventional” and “creative”!

It is impossible not to see links with the runaway gentrification washing over one New York City neighborhood after another. SantaCon goes naturally with this. Gentrification is part of a process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Undoubtedly, the SantaCon revelers, dressed alike and pursuing the same activity organized by someone else, believe they are rugged individualists, boldly displaying their “creativity.” That is what the corporate media tells them when they add a personal flourish to a corporate consumer product. Gosh, the corporate media wouldn’t lie, would they?

Corporate media get cold feet

The corporate media has begun turning against the fightback against the systematic police killing People of Color sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That is a sign of its effectiveness. The ludicrous under-counting of the size of the December 13 marches and the “reporting” of a Brooklyn Bridge incident later that evening by local newspapers that read like police department press releases indicate that those authorities who had hoped the ongoing demonstrations would have died down by now may be preparing more repressive approaches.

We’re not talking about mad-dog Murdoch media outlets, but rather newspapers that had reported on continuing unrest in Ferguson and elsewhere with minimal malice. The New York Daily News, for example, breathlessly declared: “Police said Sunday that they had arrested a hooligan who assaulted two police officers during protests on the Brooklyn Bridge overnight.” The paper made sure to stress that the arrestee had written poems containing “disdain for the cops.” Quelle horreur!

And lest we are tempted to chalk that up to tabloid excess, The New York Times, although too genteel to use a word like “hooligan,” dutifully presented the police version of the incident as undisputed fact, making sure to note the police allegation that the arrestee’s backpack was found with a sack of hammers a day after uncritically citing the police department’s obvious under-counting of the size of the main march.

The Brooklyn Bridge activists wound up marching to the Brooklyn housing project where another young Black man, Akai Gurley, was recently killed by police in a stairwell. (The officer who shot Mr. Gurley, instead of calling for help, texted his union representative.) A moment of silence was held for him. Although no time was lost in condemning activists as “guilty” following the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, the murder of Mr. Gurley was swiftly declared an “accident” by the corporate media and by Mayor Bill de Blasio without even the pretense of an investigation.

I was not on the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can not definitively say what did or did not happen. (A two-minute YouTube video shows a struggle underway, but not what might have precipitated it.) But the use of provocateurs by police to justify crackdowns is hardly unknown, so newspaper reports ought to be read with considerable caution. The uniform use of police violence against peaceful Occupy protestors and encampments should be borne in mind.

I will note that the sole example of anything violent I witnessed was when one person slapped the side of a police wagon with a hand, and several people immediately admonished that person not to do that. And this was on a spontaneous march after the main march in which the very point was to walk in the street to bring traffic to a halt in a symbolic gesture of “no business as usual.” Dozens of motorists stuck in traffic nonetheless honked their horns in solidarity, several putting their hands out their windows for the marchers to slap a “high-five” in support.

Besides a demonstration featuring parents and other family members of people killed by police in Washington, there were demonstrations in Boston, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other places. In Oakland, anti-racist activists followed up by chaining themselves to the city police headquarters.

Taking aim at systems of repression

The continuing nature of these protests — they have been nearly non-stop since August and the December 13 events likely saw the biggest single-day total of demonstrators yet — has led some people to ask if this is the beginning of an uprising. It is far too early to say, but the ongoing willingness to disrupt “business as usual” through civil disobedience tactics certainly merits serious attention. Any movement serious about effecting a change has to aim squarely at the system in which individual police officers, or district attorneys, or courts, operate.

As Angela Davis said in a lengthy interview with The Guardian, the recent police killings are part of a long chain of repression. She said:

“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice. … The problem with always pursuing the individual perpetrator in all of the many cases that involve police violence, is that one reinvents the wheel each time and it cannot possibly begin to reduce racist police violence. Which is not to say that individual perpetrators should not be held accountable – they should.”

Capitalism was built on slavery and the “triangular trade” in which which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. The North American plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying the genocide of Native Americans.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

Divide-and-conquer techniques, whereby we are set at one another’s throats for the scraps left to us by capitalist elites, are indispensable to the maintenance of massive inequality. No police officer says to him or herself, “I’m going to shoot this Black man to keep capitalism in place.” Nonetheless, the mixture of fear and loathing of Black men and women on the part of a White police officer from the suburbs with no connection to the community being patrolled is a product of structural racism. That racism, along with sexism, national hatreds, anti-Semitism and other backward ideologies, are propagated through a variety of social mechanisms, and survive partly because some people receive benefits from them and/or enjoy believing themselves superior to others through supremacist ideologies.

As long as working people allow ourselves to be divided, pointing figures at designated scapegoats, the economic structure that locks in inequality will remain untouched. That will require many people to examine and question their privileges. It would be unrealistic to expect SantaCon participants to do that, but the number of civil rights marchers greatly outnumbered SantaConners. We should not under-estimate the length of the task ahead, but that is a good start.

Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.